A Golden City, Tarnished

Coming to Mainz in around 1400, you have the best view if you approach along the Rhine. Let’s say that you are travelling upstream, as the Gutenberg family often did from their estate ten kilometres to the north. The ferryman and his gang of eight rowers hug the river bank to avoid the mid-stream current. Ahead, where the inflow of the Main lays a tongue of silt, the boat turns to make the crossing. You see the city, a collection of spires and roofs parcelled by a wall. You edge past three hulking milling-ships, waterwheels churning slowly in the current, and approach a clutter of wharves where a dozen ships are docked. Others lie moored in a backwater, awaiting cargoes. Two floating cranes swing bales of cloth on to the foreshore, which slopes 100 metres up to the city wall. Closer up, the wall resolves into house-ends and bastions broken by four gated towers, through which drayhorses haul their carts. Beyond the wall is a silhouette of wooden-tiled roofs and a hedgehog of spires – forty, actually, if you care to count them. From them comes the first sound of the city, the clang of bells. Over all looms a sturdy tower of dark-red sandstone, the steeple of St Martin’s Cathedral, the centrepiece of the city that still glories in its Roman name: Aurea Maguntia, Golden Mainz.


‘Golden’ Mainz in the Middle Ages, with its busy wharfs, muddy foreshore and milling boats (bottom right). The view was printed in 1565, almost a century after Gutenberg’s death, but it hadn’t changed much.

As you approach, the woodcut charm fades, and the smell hits. The foreshore is a mess of mud and horses, across which you pick your way towards the main gate, the Iron Tower, named after the metalworkers who have offered their wares here for almost two hundred years. You pass through outer and inner doors and past guards. Inside, you find turmoil and noise. Barefoot peasants hawk combed flax, fishmongers offer catch straight from the river, traders elbow past with fabrics from Holland and Burgundy, horses vie with cows for street space, pigs and sheep mix with carts and people. The drains are sewage ditches running beside main streets roughly paved with planks: there will be no true paving-stones in Mainz for a century. Alleys are all mud and dung. For a new arrival, it seems chaos. But not for townsmen, who know the hierarchy. You would be lucky to see the ruler, the archbishop and his retinue, making a show of authority in their fancy fabrics; you might miss the sight of a merchant’s wife, in scarlet lamb’s wool and rabbit-fur trimmings, emerging from one of the stone houses now favoured by the rich over the older, half-timbered ones; but you can’t miss the craftsmen, who drive the city’s commercial life and turn its streets into pageants.

Like unions in an old-fashioned newspaper business, each craft has its place of work and its members grouped into a guild. At this point in time, there are thirty-four guilds in Mainz, and most of them do work that assaults the senses. Here is the sweet smell of wood-merchants’ timbers, a blast of heat from a pot-maker’s oven, the scent of new-baked bread, a pungent carpet of sawdust and wood-shavings. Stonemasons and slate-roofers chip and hammer, tanners and leather-workers cure and scrape and cut. Some crafts could be familiar enough – tailors, carpenters, furriers, blacksmiths and vegetable gardeners. Others you scarcely see nowadays: coopers, salt-measurers, warpers, barber-surgeons (they were one and the same profession then). Down other streets are metalworkers, saddlers, painters, vintners, wine-sellers, ropemakers, chestmakers, bucklers, linen-weavers, hedgers, shoemakers and cobblers, all the professions common to any medieval city. Other guilds are special to a river port, like the river pilots and fishermen. But here in Mainz the upriver fishermen do not have identical interests with downriver fishermen, nor the upriver goods forwarders with their downriver counterparts. All proclaim their expertise and pride with coats of arms, which decorate clothing, goods and houses like tribal totems. New arrivals soon learn to recognise the stag salient of the Upper Lane butchers, the ox passant of their Lower Lane colleagues and rivals.

Threading your way through this messy throng, along streets that still bear the same names today, you cross the marketplace, past the booths of the forty-eight licensed cloth-sellers and past the cathedral, where work is just starting on two-storey cloisters. To your right, behind the mint, is the town hall, with its crenellated gable. Squeeze between this and the rectangular façade of the Staple Hall, where river traders have to offer their wares, force your way past boy-labourers carting fish and some town official checking a barrel of tallow, follow a few lanes, and you come to a simple, solid church with a stubby three-storey tower that will soon be given a spire marking it as one of the city’s landmarks. The church is named after St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, who in legend carried the Christ-child across a river.

A stone’s throw beyond, where the Christophstrasse joins the Schusterstrasse – Cobblers’ Street – is one of Mainz’s solid upper-class houses. It has two wings, joined at an angle, each of three storeys. It has elements of a fortress – not surprising, given Mainz’s history of civil strife. Little windows pierce the ground-floor walls, allowing a dim light into the storerooms within. The living quarters are upstairs, which is home for several family members and their close relatives.

You have reached the Gutenberg house.

I might have suggested starting the search today, but it’s a mildly depressing experience, thanks to wartime bombs. St Christopher’s, one of the few buildings to survive from 1400, is a ruin, its Romanesque walls buttressed by 1960s concrete and floored with weeds. And the original Gutenberg house, after much rebuilding, was totally flattened. Its bland and functional replacement is a pharmacy – Mohren, run by the Mann family. They specialise in medicinal teas. No ghost walks its fragrant back rooms.


In 1400 this had been known as the Gutenberg house for over a century, but not because the inventor’s family lived here. Unfortunately for us, Gutenberg was the name of the house, not the family, at least not yet. At the time, family names such as we know them today were rare. If an upper-crust, non-aristocrat was known by anything other than a Christian name, it was almost always by the name of his house or estate, von this or zu that (or vom, or zum or zur, as grammar dictated), or occasionally, in areas bordering France, de. Towns, villages, districts and large houses all acted as markers, which stuck to the current owner, as in ‘Anne of Green Gables’ or ‘Toad of Toad Hall’. But there was nothing rigid about this. If a family moved, or bought another house, the house name might go with them for a while, or not, or a new house name might be added. So different families might have the same name, and the same family often changed names or acquired more, which accumulated like silt, generation by generation. It is a system that makes genealogical research in medieval Germany a nightmare.

In our case, we’re in luck twice over, because the house name not only leads on to the man, but also back to the heart of his times. Originally, the Gutenberg house was the ‘Judenberg’, the Jewish Hill, a name with significant connotations. The Jews, scattered across Europe and the Middle East by the Romans, had prospered under Charlemagne 600 years before, forging trade links for this new empire. By 1000 there were some 20,000 of them in fifty towns dotted across Northern Europe. They became the ‘Ashkenazim’, after the son of Noah’s son Gomer, whose language was traditionally equated with German. They had no natural place in feudal Europe, neither owing allegiance to a lord, nor being lords in their own right. Hence their special roles as traders and bankers, increasingly important as Europe’s economy became less feudal and more urban. But they lived on a knife edge. In 1096, in the upsurge of xenophobia that marked the opening of the First Crusade, they became targets. Thereafter pogroms occurred every 50 to 100 years. On the one hand they were respected as the people of the Old Testament and officially tolerated by the Church ‘in accordance with the clemency that Christian piety imposes’ (the words are those of Pope Innocent III in 1199). On the other they could just as easily be despised as Christ-killers, usurers, slave-traders and potential traitors lusting for the pure and innocent blood of Christian children. One rumour – officially denied, widely credited from the thirteenth century on – was that Jews had a habit of acquiring a ‘host’, the technical term for consecrated bread used in the Communion. By papal decree in 1215, the host magically transubstantiated into Christ’s flesh as it was taken into the mouth, in accordance with his instructions at the Last Supper. Having as it were acquired Christ’s body, people muttered, the Jews then damaged it. By this paranoid reasoning, akin to the belief that witches could work black magic with dolls, Jews became ‘Christ-torturers’, and subject to several murderous anti-Semitic pogroms.

Mainz was the capital of European Jewry. It had had its own Jewish academy for over 300 years. It was revered as the home of Gershom ben Judah, the ‘Light of the Diaspora’, who in the eleventh century was the first to bring copies of the Talmud to Western Europe and whose directives (takkanot) helped Jews adapt to European practices. There had of course been pogroms – in the 1096 outbreak, 1,300 Jews were killed, and hundreds more expelled or forced to convert to Christianity, a pattern repeated in 1146 and 1282. On each occasion, influential Jews were invited back, families reformed, the community rebuilt itself. In the mid-fourteenth century, Mainz had the largest Jewish community in Europe: some 6,000.

In the 1282 pogrom, fifty-four Jewish properties were abandoned and were grabbed by the rich and powerful. It seems that the Gutenberg house fell to the archbishop’s treasurers, Philipp and Eberhard, who named themselves after their new acquisition: de Gudenberg. It was later acquired by the great-great-grandfather of our inventor and stayed in the family.


This ancestor was named Frilo, who had two houses, one with the unlikely name of Gensfleisch – Goose Flesh. No one knows why. Frilo left historians with two little problems. The first involves his coat of arms, which was used by two family lines, his own and that of his second wife’s family, who were named Sorgenloch, probably after a village sixteen kilometres south-west of Mainz now called Sörgenloch, with an umlaut. The design shows a hooded, stooping figure, bearing some sort of a burden on his back, leaning on a stick and holding out a bowl. He is wearing an odd pointed cap with a bobble, perhaps a bell, attached to its point. First recorded in the late fourteenth century, it comes in several versions; one, rediscovered in 1997 during renovations on the cathedral, was carved in stone as a house-marker. In its most common form, the man is an odd figure, with a severe stoop and a shuffling gait, and the cumbersome something or other on his back is hidden by a cloth. This historical oddity has so puzzled researchers that it has become a sort of inkblot into which they have read immense significance. Was this a mendicant friar, a fool, a pilgrim, a pedlar, a beggar? Was that cloak-covered hump a bundle of goods or a hunchback? Was that odd pointed cap a Jewish hat, like the ones used to identify Jews in medieval Christian art? And why would a patrician family wish to be identified with any of these images?

In fact, the figure may not have originally been quite so peculiar, as one version suggests. This was recorded in Austria for an odd but instructive reason. The Gutenberg house, you will recall, was just next door to St Christopher’s, which was being completed at about the time Frilo arrived. In the 1380s St Christopher inspired a certain Austrian shepherd named Heinrich – known as Henry the Foundling – to build a lodge to help travellers crossing the formidable Arlberg Pass from Switzerland into Austria. The local ruler, Leopold III, a Habsburg, supported the scheme, which must have seemed a good way to link his western Austrian domains to his Swiss ones. The new Fraternity of St Christopher raised funds through branches in many parts of Germany, including Mainz. What better way for a rising family to show its generosity and stature than by linking itself with the patron saint of their local church? Several members of the Gensfleisch family did just that, promising a small annual sum and a one-off payment of one gulden (about two weeks’ wages for a master craftsman) when they died, as the register of the Fraternity records. Beside each entry is a little Gensfleisch coat of arms with its strange figure. It is a traveller, heading into a wind, his cloak and pointed hood flapping over his shoulder. On his back is a small sack of possessions – not many, for this is a poor man. His hose is out at the knees, he has simple shoes, not boots, and he is holding out a bowl for food or alms. There is no hunchback or heavy concealed burden. He seems quite fit, a cheery figure striding along into the wind with his walking-stick.

The surviving copies of the shield, kept in the archives of St Pölten, west of Vienna, suggest a scenario: the idea for the coat of arms arises when the family comes to live in the house just next door to St Christopher’s. The figure is conceived as a St Christopher, with his Christ-child burden. But something changes the designer’s mind, because he is from the family of Frilo’s second wife, the Sorgenlochs. Sorgenloch means ‘hole of cares’. But the verb ‘sorgen’ carries the sense of ‘to care for’ as well as ‘to be burdened with cares’, as does ‘care’ in English. Perhaps what we have here is a figure who carries a complex of meanings – a St Christopher who has mutated into a sort of holy Everyman, wearing the common-or-garden pointed cap, the Gugelmütze still to be seen in Mainz festivals, soliciting help in his task of bearing the cares of the world. None of this is backed by evidence, by the way, but it is less wild than some theories, and more charming than most. I like to think this was the Gensfleisch (and Sorgenloch) way of stating their adherence to the Christian virtues of humility and fortitude.

Then there is the second problem left by Frilo. Why did he not add ‘Gutenberg’ to his list of names? One possibility is that his family had a perfectly sound sense of themselves, with several properties to their credit, and their coat of arms now rooted them firmly in Mainz society. But that seems to me only a partial answer. Eventually, following custom, it would have been natural to name themselves after their new family house. The time might well have come around the middle of the fourteenth century; except that there occurred something so dreadful that it quite put the idea out of mind.


To explain what happened, let us consider for a moment the marmots of Mongolia. These creatures, common on the Central Asian grasslands, are charming to look at and make an excellent stew, but are occasionally better avoided because they are favoured by fleas, which can harbour a virulent bacillus, which kills both fleas and marmots. In the right circumstances, when marmots are few, the fleas may spread to other species – rabbits, rats and eventually humans. Once in the bloodstream, the bacillus causes a reaction that is usually (though not always) fatal. It strikes either the lungs (90 per cent fatal) or the blood (100 per cent fatal) or, most commonly, the lymph glands. These glands, unable to drain off the poison, balloon into hard, dark, nut-sized swellings known as ‘buboes’, to which the affliction owes its name – the bubonic plague, better known as the Black Death.

Sometime in the 1340s, the marmots of Mongolia suffered a decline. Pasteurella pestis sought other hosts and found them conveniently commuting along the pony-express routes created by the Mongols in their explosive conquests over the preceding 150 years. A few years later, the fleas and their nasty little parasites reached the Crimea. There the local Mongols were besieging the ancient port of Feodosiya, which Italian merchants from Genoa had taken over in the previous century as a ‘factory’, or trading station, renaming it Kaffa. Stricken by the plague, the Mongols withdrew, with a parting shot. In December 1347 they catapulted the plague-ridden bodies of their own dead over the walls to infest the Italians. The next ship heading back to the Mediterranean carried the plague, in its rats, in its flea-ridden materials and in its crew. From Italy and southern France the plague spread north at an average rate of fifteen kilometres a week, visiting upon Europe its greatest catastrophe ever. In three years something like 25 million people died, perhaps more. A papal inquiry put the figure at 40 million. This represented a third of Europe’s population. In some places the death toll may have topped 60 per cent. The devastation was almost universal, and the effects scarred cities, cultures and minds for generations.

Of the causes, no one knew anything at all at the time, and therein lay the true horror. There have been events of equivalent impact – the Holocaust, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, AIDS when it was first reported – but none of a comparable scale. It is the lack of explanation that unhinges minds. People can cope with fear and suffering better if they understand, or feel they do. In Nazi concentration camps, Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses preserved their sanity in a world gone mad with the certainty that they were players in a drama written by the laws of either history or God. Christian Europe saw only a world turned upside down. The biblical God promised both salvation in the next life and support in this one. Now He seemed suddenly impotent, if not positively antagonistic. Why? Ignorance bred a hysterical rush for explanations and redress. God must be angry at human sin; clearly He was out to impose punishment; so perhaps He could be mollified if humans undertook their own pre-emptive punishment. Across Europe, groups of crazed devotees marched from city to city, lashing themselves with iron-tipped thongs, crying for God’s mercy, while onlookers moaned and dabbed clothes in the blood to provide themselves with healing relics.

And who or what had been the cause of God’s ire? An answer was close to hand. It was all the fault of the Jews. In Geneva, Jews were tortured until they confessed the truth: they had poisoned the wells. To minds broken by ignorance and fear, it all made sense. In the popular mind, the Jews were, after all, Christ-torturers and child-murderers. Across Germany the word spread that the Jews were also ‘well-poisoners’. Here was the scapegoat needed to assuage an angry God, and vengeance was swift. On St Valentine’s Day 1348, reported the chronicler Jakob Twinger von Königshofen, ‘the Jews were burned in Strasbourg in their churchyard on a wooden scaffolding. And anything owed to the Jews was regarded as settled. Any cash owned by the Jews was taken by the council and distributed among the craft trades. Thus it was that the Jews were burned in Strasbourg and in the same year in all the cities along the Rhine.’ Arriving in some new town, eager for more blood to feed their frenzy, bands of flagellants headed for the Jewish quarters to root out evil. In Antwerp and Brussels, the entire Jewish community was slain. In Erfurt, 3,000 perished. In Worms and Frankfurt, the Jews, facing certain death, resorted to the tradition of Masada, and committed mass suicide.

In 1348–9 the plague struck Mainz. Some 10,000 people – perhaps half its inhabitants – died. Its citizens sought their traditional scapegoats. Here, in a response that seems to have been unique, the Jews fought back as the mob closed in. They killed 200 people before retreating into their own homes. In vain: on Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August, 100 of them were burned outside St Quentin’s Church.

For the Church and temporal rulers, this was madness beyond endurance. Flagellants usurped the role of priests, claiming a direct line to God; and if the Jews were killed, who would fund enterprise and war? The Pope recalled the tradition of tolerance and banned the flagellants. Kings and dukes followed suit. The flagellants vanished, in the words of an eyewitness, ‘like night phantoms or mocking ghosts’, and the surviving Jews again rebuilt their lives.

In Mainz, as everywhere, there was no easy escape from these dreadful events, for the plague returned twice more in the next decades, reminding all of their helplessness. A city of 20,000 was reduced to a rump of some 6,000 people, the number of guilds dropped from fifty to thirty-four and Golden Mainz found itself with a good deal of its gilt scratched off. But the horrors lived on – in anecdote, in song, in dance, in painting, in sculpture – to the point of obsession. Artists replaced images of soulful serenity with visions of worms and putrefaction. Mainz, like hundreds of towns and villages throughout Europe, had its danse macabre (a term of disputed origin, first recorded in 1376). This death-dance reminded participants of the fate that would come to all, high and low. ‘Advance, see yourselves in us’, chant skeletons in a fourteenth-century mural of a danse macabre in the Church of the Innocents in Paris, ‘dead, naked, rotten and stinking. So will you be . . . Power, honour, riches are naught; at the hour of death only good works count.’ Death, the great leveller, opened the dance, summoning people from squares and houses, leading them to the graveyard. There, to raucous tunes, Death’s skeletal assistants beckoned the pope, king, queen and cardinal to a ritualised end, followed by ordinary townsfolk and peasants, mocking and mowing in back-to-front breeches with cowbells tied between their legs and beer-flagons freely passed around, flattening them until Judgement Day bid them arise and stagger home to their beds and hangovers.

And so with these grim realities in mind – a fearful plague, an atrocious act of anti-Semitism – the Gensfleisch family forbore to link themselves to the house on Jews’ Hill. Perhaps their association with St Christopher suggested some faint notion that to become Gutenbergs might not be in the best of taste. Better to wait until memories began to fade.


The inventor’s father, Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden – picking up a house name from another family property – was well off. He inherited a farm, part of the Gutenberg house, and an income from the interest on a loan made by Mainz to the town of Wetzlar in 1382. His position was secured by marriage to a woman of property, Else Wirich. It was she who brought into the family the country estate in Eltville, ten kilometres downriver. Though neither rich nor aristocratic, the family was eminent enough to rank among the worthies of the town, the 100 or so families who referred to themselves as Geschlechter (the Families) or Alten, ‘ancients’. The current term, inherited from nineteenth-century usage which favoured classical connections, is ‘patricians’. As a member of the ‘patrician’ establishment, Friele inherited a position as ‘Companion of the Mint’, which sounds rather grand, for this key economic body was controlled by the archbishop. In fact, it was more like being a member of an exclusive club, which protected itself by demanding that members should be true-blue patricians back to all four grandparents. He also inherited a right to trade in the cloth that had to be offered for sale by all cloth-merchants passing up and down the Rhine – an upper-class trading monopoly gained in exchange for providing protection from the Rhine’s ‘robber barons’. It was on his death in 1419 that his heirs decided the time had come to join house name and family, and officially referred to him as Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg.

By then his son Johann – Gutenberg, as we can now call him – was a young man. How old exactly? No one knows. The only certainty is that, on the evidence of his father’s will, he was of age by 1420, which means he was born sometime between 1394 and 1404. The only reason his birthday is supposedly in 1400, and why it seems a good date to begin this book, is purely down to some well-judged public relations by Mainz’s city fathers.

What happened was this:

As the significance of Gutenberg’s invention in 1440 became ever more obvious, it became the subject of centennial celebrations. In 1540 Wittenberg took the lead, followed a century later in Leipzig, Breslau and Strasbourg. In 1740 Dresden, Bamberg, Halle and Frankfurt joined in. Mainz was slow off the mark. It took the French to point out what they were missing, after Napoleon’s army took Mainz in 1792. The revolutionaries knew how to value printing. A Franco-German with the glorious name of Anacharsis Cloots made a passionate speech to the National Assembly, extolling Gutenberg as a benefactor of mankind whose ashes should at once be joined with those of the great and good in the Pantheon in Paris. ‘Gutenberg’s invention’, he cried, ‘will become the tool with which we will rework the future!’ He was guillotined two years later, but his message had been heard. French administrators in ‘Mayence’, now the bastion of France’s eastern frontier, spent 2 million francs tearing down old buildings to create today’s Gutenbergplatz, with its statue staring in scholarly meditation at the theatre opposite. At last, over three hundred years after his death, Gutenberg was Mainz’s favourite son.

Still, it was the invention, not the man, that they celebrated. So it continued after France’s defeat in 1815. In 1840 Germans struggling to paste together a nation from medieval shards found in printing a fitting symbol of German enterprise and creativity. In eighty-nine towns from Aachen to Zurich, German-speakers celebrated their discovery in verses, pageants and concerts. Mainz’s own two-day festival was rather overshadowed. What Gutenberg’s home town really needed was a unique event, something all its own.

In the 1890s the city fathers saw their chance. They would celebrate Gutenberg’s birthday. No matter that no one knew when it was – uncertainty offered an opportunity. It could be any year they wanted. And what better year than the turn of the century? Paris was planning to cash in on the centennial with a great international festival, which should not go unchallenged. Ideas were mooted, plans proposed. The mayor took matters in hand. He wrote to the leading Gutenberg scholar, Karl Dziatzko of Göttingen, to ask his advice. Back came exactly the right reply: since no one knew precisely when Gutenberg was born, and since everyone agreed it was sometime around the turn of the century, in Dziatzko’s opinion one might as well opt for a nice round year, namely 1900, as the time to celebrate Gutenberg’s birthday – his five hundredth, no less. And on what day should it be celebrated? Again, since any day could be chosen, Mainz might as well opt for the most suitable – Johann’s own name day, the Feast of St John the Baptist, 24 June. Furthermore, nothing less than an international festival would do the occasion justice. And finally it should all revolve around a new society created in Gutenberg’s name.

This was music to municipal ears. At a meeting of Mainz’s journalists and writers on 20 April 1896, the mayor presented this glorious vision, and the local paper, the Mainzer Anzeiger, backed him in ringing tones: ‘Everyone agreed that Mainz was not only justified in opting for a festival – it had a duty to do so.’ So PR made history. From then on, the world looked to Mainz, where the Gutenberg Museum became a focal point for Gutenberg studies and Gutenberg tourism. As far as the public is concerned, our hero entered the world on 24 June 1400.


Johann (or Johannes: the spelling varied) was born into Mainz’s establishment and baptised, according to unsubstantiated tradition, in St Christopher’s. There is no information about his early education, but his later skills suggest that his elderly father and commercially minded mother made sure he had a good start in one of Mainz’s several schools. It could have been a church school – St Christopher’s had one – but there were others, run by townspeople, where pupils learned to write using the combination of capital and small letters favoured by Church and state bureaucracies. He might have learned the numbering system from Arabian lands, of which traditionalists still disapproved. In any event he would have learned Latin, the language of scholars and churchmen in a continent that was all dialects and no agreed ‘national’ languages. If he went to the school run by the Carmelite brethren, just beyond St Christopher’s, he would have been taught by priests trained in Avignon and Oxford. Committed to Christlike poverty and intellectual rigour, they drilled their pupils until they could chat to each other in Latin. For the first ten years of his life, it must have seemed that little Johann – Henchen (‘Little Hans’) as he was known – was in for a contented and secure childhood.

But a number of factors combined against him. His mother, Else Wirich, came from a family who had gone down in the world. A great-grandfather had chosen the wrong side in a small-scale civil war in the early fourteenth century and ended up marrying the daughter of an Italian moneychanger. Their son, Else’s father, was a mere shopkeeper. Friele Gensfleisch married beneath himself. Why he did so we will never know. Perhaps it was for love. If so, it was not the first love match to have social consequences. Their children – Johann, his elder brother Friele and sister Else – lacked the background to inherit his father’s position as a Companion of the Mint. There would be no easy access to upper-class influence for Henchen.

Anyway, upper-class life in Mainz had its problems. This was a city in deep trouble. Not that an outsider would have seen much cause for concern. The archbishop, Johannes of Nassau (a village forty-eight kilometres to the north-west), commuting between his estate in Eltville and his residence beside the cathedral in Mainz, seemed the very image of stability. Through his people – his chancellor and the mayor – he controlled the ‘ancients’ – the patricians – in their hereditary posts in the town hall, the mint, the law court and the Staple Hall. His income and the cathedral’s was assured, from his lands, from the fees for Masses to be said for the dead, from the sale of documents absolving purchasers of their sins (a business of which we will hear a good deal more later).

But insiders knew this show of control was a sham. In the taverns where the guildsmen downed their wine – for every guild had its favourite haunt – the lads drank to their own rising power. Ever since the archbishop had allowed property-owners to form a council in the twelfth century, the forty-odd seats on the town council had slipped from high-born to lower-born. In the mid-thirteenth century the council men had all been the archbishop’s nominees. In 1332, after the two sides came to blows in a nasty little civil war, the archbishop backed off, and patricians and guilds divided the council between them. A century later, in Gutenberg’s lifetime, the guildsmen would gain total control. Meanwhile, resentments built, tamped down by regularly revised agreements in which the townsfolk swore allegiance, promised to keep the peace, not to carry weapons, to avoid feuding and so on and so forth in articles that entirely failed to resolve the underlying tensions.

One cause of resentment was the profligacy and selfishness of the patricians. They refused to pay taxes. And they had discovered the joys of capitalism, in the form of annuities. It was a wonderful idea: you paid a lump sum to the city, and the city ‘repaid’ 5 per cent of the sum every year for twenty years – and then went on paying, to you if you survived, to your heirs if you didn’t. In effect, a loan repayment of 5 per cent per annum simply became an everlasting interest payment of 5 per cent. Johann was himself a beneficiary, with two annuities that paid him a total of twenty-three gulden (‘golden’, the Rhenish equivalent of the Italian gold coin named a ‘florin’, after its town of origin, Florence).

In the short run the scheme looked good. All the city needed was a flow of initial payments. In the long run, however, the city fathers had to make more than they paid out in interest, as modern insurance companies do. But they couldn’t. There was no stock market to play, and they needed the assets to run the town hall, to repair the walls and to employ scribes and lawyers and watchmen. So the only way they could keep up the payments was to get more deposits. They were, in effect, creating a financial pyramid, which depended on ever more capital to keep itself going. By the early fifteenth century interest on the debt was eating up 40 per cent of the income from ground rents and taxes, and rising inexorably. Soon there would be no more citizens to contribute. The city would be having to pay 100 per cent of its income in annuities, and there would be no income. The place would be bust. The guildsmen, who neither controlled this system nor benefited from it, objected ever more vociferously.

In the summer of 1411 tempers flared, again. On the council, guildsmen opposed a patrician candidate for mayor. Sixteen leading guildsmen urged their patrician colleagues to loosen up, or else. But loosening up meant revolution. The patricians would have to lose their privileges, pay taxes and abandon their comfortable annuities. The patricians, though, knew what to do, because their grandparents had shown them, back in the civil war of 1332. The rich had simply left town for their country estates until the townsmen felt the pinch of absent money and allowed a return. In that summer of 1411, 117 patricians decamped, most of them with their families. Among them was Friele Gensfleisch and – it’s safe to assume – Else, with Johann and his elder brother and sister, making a hasty retreat downriver to Eltville, where the archbishop’s castle and retinue offered protection to those lucky enough to own property. There and in other outlying areas the well-off sat tight to await better times.

Better times did not come. Though the archbishop mediated and families returned, the city remained angrily divided between guildsmen and patricians. Friele took his family off to safety again in 1413, this time for an extended stay. In 1415 the German king himself intervened, and Mainz’s problems jumped from the local to the national stage.


The word ‘national’, however, is a modern imposition. True, the Germans had a king; but what he ruled, or tried to rule, was not a nation in a modern sense. And true, Germans shared a language and a culture, and referred to themselves as a ‘people’; but as a place ‘Germany’ had no heart and was fuzzy round the edges. Traditionally, Germans thought of themselves as people who lived between the Rivers Rhine and Elbe. In 1400, though, the German people included not only those of today’s Austria, but also an ever-increasing area in the east as Germans colonised Hungary, Poland, western Russia, the Baltic states and the Czech-speaking areas of Bohemia. The first German university was founded in Czech-speaking Prague in 1348.

There was no centre driving this outward flow, but rather dozens of centres of different kinds: dukedoms, princedoms, margravates, counties and Church estates, some with bishops who were also princes, some whose bishops were ruled by princes. Every local ruler could hope to make up his own authority and answer to none. As Duke Rudolf IV of Habsburg said: ‘I myself intend to be pope, archbishop, bishop, archdeacon and dean in my land.’ In 1366 Abbot Mangold of Reichenau on Lake Constance arrested five fishermen for poaching, put their eyes out with his own fingers and sent them home to Constance without fear of reprisal.

Towns (like Mainz) were the wildest cards in this motley pack. Traditionally, rulers swapped, pledged, mortgaged or sold them. But in 1400, when there were about thirty German towns of over two thousand people, this was becoming harder, for the townspeople themselves objected, turning their communities into hotbeds of enterprise and ambition and class conflict.

It all amounted to an unruly mess: imagine the Balkans multiplied by ten. In 1400 some four hundred entities, all pursuing their own economic and dynastic interests, formed a political slurry, like a country-sized microscope-slide on which cells shifted and bred and merged and divided endlessly. There was no easy way to understand them, let alone control them.

But there were always those willing to try. The great landowners – principally the Wittelsbachs, Luxemburgs and Habsburgs – employed every possible tactic to increase their power, from peaceful trade and intermarriage to robbery with violence, murder and full-scale war. No estates and no borders were fixtures, especially on the fringes, where the French, the Swiss and the Italians were at it as well. The Habsburgs ruled much of present-day Austria, but they also bought and fought and inherited and married their way into estates that speckled Central Europe from Istria on the Adriatic to northern Holland.

Two rulers attempted to impose peace and unity – the Pope and the German king. Supposedly, their domains were separate, the one looking after the next world across all Europe, the other marshalling Germany’s political patchwork. In fact there was no separation. Papal interests were political; royal interests demanded involvement in the Church. To make sense of the confusions would take 600 years of wars and the emergence of another god, Mammon, with his own temples in Brussels.

Christian unity, such as had existed at the fall of the Roman Empire, was virtually a lost cause, because the city of Constantine, whose conversion had made Rome Christian, was now Rome’s rival. Both Rome and Constantinople, capitals of the western and eastern rumps of the Empire, regarded themselves as the only true conduit for Christian truth. In Greece and Turkey and much of Eastern Europe, Constantinople (or Byzantium, as it was in Greek) ruled. But Italy and Northern Europe were Rome’s. Latinised Christianity had preserved European civilisation for 1,000 years since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Its hundreds of foundations ran schools, built cathedrals – nothing has ever quite equalled that astonishing outpouring of faith, commitment, teamwork and artistry that produced Northern Europe’s Gothic cathedrals – administered estates, dealt with kings and princes. In 1400 modern concepts of scientific and historical truth hardly existed – sources were as rare as desert flowers, to be found, if at all, only by a lifetime of travel. The only true truth was that of the Church, which, like Big Brother, controlled the media, in the form of scribes (for the written word), priests (for oral transmission) and artists, who served both. The Church had become rich beyond imagining, with the faults that wealth and privilege bring.

Worldly wealth bred corruption at the centre and unrest in subjects appalled by that corruption. In 1300 the Pope, who was French, became so nervous of Italy and its violent ways that he transferred his court to Avignon, where it stayed under French protection for seventy-six years. After a later (Italian) Pope returned to Rome and died, pro-French and pro-Italian factions locked horns on the question of his successor. A botched election produced two rivals, Pope and anti-Pope, one in Avignon, the other in Rome. Both were urged to resign so that a new one could be elected. They both refused, but the compromise candidate was elected anyway. Between 1409 and 1417, the years when Johann Gutenberg was a teenager, there were no fewer than three Popes simultaneously. This long-running farce, known as the Great Schism, for ever damaged papal claims to spiritual and political superiority, and strengthened the case for independence of thought and action among his varied and resentful subjects.

Despite it all, Catholic spiritual authority remained the only unifying force north of the Alps. When Charlemagne had had himself crowned in Rome in 800, he set up a lasting ideal of political and spiritual unity. That idea migrated eastwards with the remains of the Empire itself, emerging under German auspices in the thirteenth century as the Holy Roman Empire (which a later leader would term the First Reich, so he could lay claim to the third one). No German king felt himself to be a proper ruler until crowned emperor by the Pope.

But a papal blessing in Rome buttered few parsnips in the Empire’s 400 mini-states. To wield influence, the emperor needed money and soldiers, preferably from imperial estates rather than his own personal possessions. If he was good at the game, he could hope to increase his portfolio with the gain of a church, or a castle, or a river toll, or the income from a Jewish community, or even a whole town. But he could achieve nothing much without the backing of the most powerful of his equals and rivals. In 1356 the German king and leading princes defined the process in a contract known as the Golden Bull. This gave the seven most influential leaders – a king, three archbishops and three nobles – the job of electing the king. From then on, it was as electors that the Big Three – Luxemburgs, Wittelsbachs and Habsburgs – pushed their own candidates for the imperial throne (so called, although technically it was not truly imperial until the papal laying on of hands). No one, of course, wished to give away too much power. So the king/emperor’s position remained tenuous. He was always short of money and had no capital from which to administer. His true power-base was local: imperial possessions were few, and anyway kept shifting beneath his feet with every intermarriage, alliance and skirmish. In this federation of wary aristocrats, it was hard for a cash-strapped, peripatetic king to assert himself.

In 1415 an ability to assert himself was what King Sigismund needed above all. Elected in 1411, he was forty-seven and had already lived an eventful and precarious life, typical of the random and obscure nature of events in medieval Germany. As an emperor’s son, he was born to the purple, and had connections enough to achieve it. Husband to the queen of Poland, half-brother to the king of Germany, who was also king of Bohemia and brother-in-law to the queen of Poland – his wife’s sister, as it happened – he had high hopes of having himself made emperor and restoring the glory that had been Charlemagne’s. As a good Christian, he had tried crusading against the Turks and had been lucky to escape with his life. Trying to get his hands on Bohemia, he had arrested his half-brother, been arrested in return, warred against Naples, and had been voted in as German king only because his main rival had died after three months on the throne. So there he was, eager to find a measure of stability in his battered middle age, and to do his best for Christendom, and thus qualify for a papal coronation. Thanks to him, 29 cardinals, 33 archbishops, 150 bishops and their 70,000 courtiers, servants and assistants were at this moment in council in Constance, arguing about how best to overcome the scandal of the Great Schism. Naturally, Sigismund was keen to explore any further way to buttress his authority, and so turned his gaze on unruly Mainz.


Mainz, dominating the river-road of the Rhine, lay at the heart of the electoral system. The archbishop of Mainz was an elector, ruling the greatest of the Empire’s ten Church-run provinces. It was he who administered the royal coronation oath, which made him a German equivalent of the archbishop of Canterbury. But his status was peculiar to German lands. He was both archbishop, with thirteen bishops under him, and a prince with the power to raise both taxes and armies at will – in theory. In practice, it wasn’t that easy, because he had a disputatious flock of patricians and guildsmen, each wanting their say in running the town. It was this dispute that gave Sigismund an excuse to intervene, with an agenda that suited his own purposes both as king and as a Luxemburger. The current archbishop/prince, Johannes of Nassau, had voted against him in the election for king the previous year. He needed to sideline the archbishop by backing the town’s council.

Talks focused on hard cash. The archbishop controlled the mint, on Mainz’s square across from the cathedral. The council wanted the town to have the right to strike coins. In 1419 Sigismund agreed, hoping that Mainz’s new imperial currency would underpin his influence across the whole Rhineland. It didn’t work out like that, because the archbishop had no intention of allowing an imperial mint to undercut his profits, but for a time it seemed that Mainz would join Frankfurt as a source of new Apfelgulden (‘apple goldens’), as they were known, after the imperial orb or apple, the Reichsapfel, that formed their design.

Through these developments, young Johann Gutenberg would have been busy at his schoolwork, probably at one of the five universities founded in German-speaking lands since the mid-fourteenth century. Possibly he went to Erfurt (founded in 1379), which was popular with students from Mainz, among them two of Johann’s cousins. A certain ‘Johannes de Altavilla’ (the old Latinised name for Eltville) was registered there in 1418 and graduated two years later. If this was our Johann, he was well placed to feel the pulse of the times.

Clerics talked of the ending of the Great Schism at the Council of Constance, of King Sigismund’s role as chairman, and of the continuing unrest in Bohemia. It had started a decade previously with a revolt by the followers of Jan Hus, centring on one of those arcane matters that now seems totally eccentric to outsiders, but which has always been central to Catholicism, indeed all Christianity. It concerned the central element in the Eucharist, the Communion service, in which Christians honour Christ’s injunction at the Last Supper to drink wine and eat bread ‘in remembrance of me’. According to the Roman tradition, bread alone could be used for the service, if, for instance, no wine was available (quite a practical policy for missionaries in, say, Iceland). Not so, claimed the heretical Hus. You had to use both. Communion had to be dispensed sub utraque specie, ‘in both kinds’, which gave rise to an alternative name for Hus’s followers, the Utraquists. When one of the Popes called on Sigismund, the German king, for help, he seized on the request as an excuse to extend his influence. He offered help, as long as the Pope agreed to another congress, this time in the German city of Constance, where he staged a very public statement of his ambitions. He entered the city on Christmas Eve 1414, late in the evening, and led his entourage into the cathedral, along with locals surging in for the midnight Mass. Packing the front rows with his followers, he had himself robed as a priest so that he himself could take the service. This piece of drama had just the effect he wanted: the scene formed part of the narrative in a much-copied picture-history of the council. Here for all the world to see was the German king in a spiritual role chanting a Roman liturgy.

Under Sigismund’s chairmanship, the council had Hus burned to death, the Hussites excommunicated en masse, a new Pope (Martin V) elected and further councils planned. But these were no solutions, for Pope Martin and council remained at loggerheads and the outraged Hussites declared war, in effect a national uprising. The German burgomaster in Prague was tossed out of the town hall window to the delight of the cheering crowd (incidentally, this seemed to establish a bizarre Czech habit for throwing important people out of windows. A defenestration started the Thirty Years War in 1618 and another marked the coming of Communist rule in 1948).

All of this would have been common knowledge in Erfurt. Here were professors who had been expelled from Prague when the Hussites decided to promote locals at the expense of the Germans. Gutenberg – assuming he was indeed there – would have spoken with those who predicted dire things for the Hussites, whose obduracy was to obsess both Sigismund and the Pope. He would have listened to the complaints of Czechs and Germans who railed against the corruption of a Church that sold absolutions for cash. He would have been familiar with the names of those in favour of ordinary people reading the Bible, whether in their own language, as John Wycliffe in England proclaimed, or in Latin, or even in Czech (under Hus’s influence). From pamphlets printed from woodcuts, he would have learned something of the apparently endless fight between France and England, which we now call the Hundred Years War. He would have acquired a few books, probably buying his own edition – copied at some expense by local scribes – of the most common Latin grammar, the Ars Grammatica, by a fourth-century scholar, Aelius Donatus.

By 1420 Johann was back in Mainz, where Archbishop Johannes of Nassau had just died, having lived long enough to see the completion of his ambitious, two-storey cloisters. His statue, brilliantly carved by Mainz’s resident genius, Madern Gerthener, was already in place in the cathedral (you can still see it today: third pillar on the right from the altar). Cloisters and statue told the same old story of a Church growing fatter while the town didn’t. Johann had little cause for optimism. He had no property of his own, no inherited fortune, and his annuities were at risk. His elder brother, Friele, was in the Gutenberg house with his family. His mother, Else, had moved into a smaller place, though keeping her home in Eltville. His mother’s shopkeeping status excluded him from the ranks of the patricians – and thus from the business that would otherwise have provided him with the livelihood he needed.


The business was coin-making. As a Companion of the Mint, his father had been close to it. His uncle, another Johann, was also a Companion. He knew the sons of at least two other Companions, Heinz Reyse and Johann Kumoff, both of whom had shared the Gutenberg house when he was younger. He would have known how coins were struck, because he would have seen the work being done at the mint, on the market square just two minutes’ walk from his house.

‘Struck’ is the operative word here, though technically it is not the coin itself that is struck. Coins were cast from a metal mould; the mould was made from a die, or two dies, with indented surfaces; a die was made with a punch; it was the punch, with its raised pattern, that had to be struck. Anyone, then or now, who has had any experience of jewellery-making or bookbinding would recognise a punch for making coins – a handle like that of a chisel, a steel shank a few centimetres long, on the end of which the punch-maker engraved an image. This shank of engraved steel, correctly positioned on softer metal, was struck with a hammer, leaving a mirror image of itself, as a cattle brand or rubber stamp does. When impressions of two dies (representing both sides of the coin) were ready, they were put together to form the complete mould, into which silver or gold was poured to make the coin.

The key to the operation was the punch. Punch-making in the early fifteenth century was already an ancient art, for which an apprentice punch-maker first learned how to temper steel, heating it and cooling it until it reached a strength that stopped short of brittleness. Then he would learn how to select one of a score of different graving tools, with their minute scooped and angled tips, and scrape away tiny flakes of steel on the punch’s head. It sounds incredible that steel can cut steel in this way, but if the flakes are small enough, they peel off easily, until, like a microscopic sculpture, the letter, or figure, or number stood proud from its foundation. The accuracy of a good punch-maker was staggering, and the joy to be taken in it as real as that of any sculptor. Listen to one of our modern punch-makers, Fred Smeijers, a Dutch graphic and typographic designer, waxing lyrical about his skill and his materials in his book Counterpunch:

In order to work correctly and pleasantly your graver has to be sharp. To test its sharpness, just put the graver on your thumbnail. Without any pressure you feel it sinking a little into your naturally very sensitive thumbnail. If you can easily cut curls from the nail of your thumb, then the graver is sharp enough. If we put this graver against the punch at a certain angle, the cutting edge will dig itself into the unhardened steel of the punch. This happens as easily as it did in your thumbnail. With a very light pressure – one can’t call it an effort – you push the graver upwards, and by doing this you cut away a little curl of steel. If you keep your hand steady, you can cut away long curls too, even to a length of three millimetres. At moments like this, steel is no longer steel. It looks and feels much more like cold butter: there is the same ease, pressure and pleasure with which you cut off larger and smaller curls of butter with a knife. Then you feel nothing but delight in this substance, with such a strong and fine structure, which we call steel.


Striking metals – the fundamental technique for making type. An eighteenth-

century view of a practice little changed from Gutenberg’s time.

This is truly artistry in miniature, a Western version of those Chinese geniuses who wrote on grains of rice. A curl of steel cut in this way is no more than 0.01 millimetres thick, which is the width of a dot on a dot-matrix printer with a resolution of 6.25 million dots per square inch. By comparison, an early dot-matrix had 90,000–120,000 dpi (dots per square inch). Today’s laser printers have a resolution of 750,000 dpi (measured in grains of toner rather than old-fashioned dots, but the terminology endures). Now remember that these minute slivers of steel were no more than 0.01 millimetres thick; they could be as little as a tenth of that, just one micron thick (a thousandth of a millimetre, or a twenty-five-thousandth of an inch).

The startling conclusion is that Johann Gutenberg, from his childhood, was in the company of men who could carve a letter in steel that had at least six, and perhaps sixty, times the resolution of a modern laser printer, just at the time that Sigismund gave Mainz the right to make imperial coins, with a consequent demand for new designs, and new punches.

Did he really do this work himself? I have no idea, and nor does anyone else. There is no evidence one way or the other for all this decade. All we can say with confidence is that he would have known those who did, at a time when that expertise suddenly looked likely to be in demand.


And Mainz staggered towards bankruptcy, in a series of financial crises that would take another twenty-six years to run their course. A similar pattern repeated itself every few years: the council, dominated by guildsmen, trying to increase taxes, patricians heading for the countryside, annuities cut, debt repayments reduced, creditors fobbed off, the archbishop bailing out the city, while taking care to keep his ancient privileges intact. In 1430 the archbishop brokered a peace, with complicated clauses about the number of sub-mayors and treasurers, and who should hold copies of keys to the city vaults. Mainz even advertised for immigrants, promising them ten tax-free years. None of it did any good. By 1438 the city would owe 373,000 gulden, enough to buy every house in town. The tensions were intolerable and would eventually, at the end of Gutenberg’s life, lead to war.

Johann’s elder brother, Friele, came into line, returning with his family to pay taxes and in due course join the new establishment as one of the town’s three sub-mayors. But Johann himself seems to have been one of those unwilling to accept the new social order, unable perhaps to see how he could make himself a living. One of his annuities had been cut in half, reducing his income from twenty-three gulden to ten, enough to keep body and soul together for only a few months of the year. He had the good sense, though, to wring from the town clerk, a certain Niklaus von Wörrstadt, a promise by the burgomasters to pay the annuity no matter what; indeed, the harassed clerk even gave him a personal guarantee in case of a default.

Imagine a young man living with the insecurities and fears engendered by random visitations of the Black Death, intensified by social collapse and the threat of civil strife, and deprived of a patrician lifestyle which might so easily have been his. He was in his late twenties, unmarried, intelligent, well educated and (as his later career showed) ambitious. Yet for ten years, even if he was earning pin money as a punch-cutter or coin-maker, he had done nothing of much interest. The only records of him note tedious little changes in his annuities. As he approached thirty, he might well have been feeling a certain frustration.

In 1429 or thereabouts he seems to have made a decision, perhaps inspired by the breakdown of talks between guildsmen and patricians. A conciliation agreement brokered by the archbishop refers to him as ‘not in residence’ and offered him a chance to return. He refused, and vanished from Mainz’s records for the next twenty years. It looks as if he gave up the place as a bad job. For whatever reason, he set out to seek his fortune in a more stable and congenial city.

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